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the attention to general principles, instead of particular truths, is the professed aim of all philosophy; and according as individuals have more or less of the philosophic spirit, their habitual speculations (whatever the nature of their pursuits may be) will relate to the former, or to the latter of these objects.
There are, therefore, among the inen who are accustomed to the exercise of their intellectual powers, two classes, whose habits of thought are remarkably distinguished from each other; the one class comprehending what we commonly call men of business, or more properly, men of detail; the other men of abstraction; or, in other words, philosophers.
The advantages which, in certain respects, the latter of these possess over the former, have been already pointed out; but it must not be supposed that these advantages are always purchased without some inconvenience. As the solidity of our general principles depends on the accuracy of the particular observations into which they are ultimately resolvable, so their utility is to be estimated by the practical applications of which they admit; and it unfortunately happens, that the same turn of mind which is favourable to philosophical pursuits, unless it be kept under proper regulation, is extremely apt to disqualify us for applying our knowledge to use, in the exercise of the arts and in the conduct of affairs.
In order to perceive the truth of these remarks, it is almost sufficient to recollect, that as classification, and, of consequence, general reasoning, presuppose the exercise of abstraction, a natural disposition to indulge in them cannot fail to lead the mind to overlook the specific differences of things in attending to their common qualities. To succeed, however, in practice, a
, familiar and circumstantial acquaintance with the particular objects which fall under our observation, is indispensably necessary.
But farther : As all general principles are founded on classifications which imply the exercise of abstraction, it is necessary to regard them, in their practical applications, merely as approximations to the truth, the defects of which must be supplied by habits acquired by personal experience. In con
sidering, for example, the theory of the mechanical powers, it is usual to simplify the objects of our conception, by abstracting from friction, and from the weight of the different parts of which they are composed. Levers are considered as mathematical lines, perfectly inflexible ; and ropes as mathematical lines, perfectly flexible ;-and by means of these, and similar abstractions, a subject which is in itself extremely complicated, is brought within the reach of elementary geometry. In the theory of politics we find it necessary to abstract from many
of the peculiarities which distinguish different forms of government from each other, and to reduce them to certain general classes, according to their prevailing tendency. Although all the governments we have ever seen have had more or less of mixture in their composition, we reason concerning pure monarchies, pure aristocracies, and pure democracies, as if there really existed political establishments corresponding to our definitions. Without such a classification, it would be impossible for us to fix our attention, amidst the multiplicity of particulars which the subject presents to us, or to arrive at any general principles which might serve to guide our inquiries in comparing different institutions together.
It is for a similar reason that the speculative farmer reduces the infinite variety of soils to a few general descriptions; the physician, the infinite variety of bodily constitutions to a few temperaments; and the moralist, the infinite variety of human characters to a few of the ruling principles of action.
Notwithstanding, however, the obvious advantages we derive from these classifications, and the general conclusions to which they lead, it is evidently impossible that principles, which derived their origin from efforts of abstraction, should apply literally to practice; or, indeed, that they should afford us any considerable assistance in conduct, without a certain degree of practical and experimental skill. Hence it is, that the mere
, theorist so frequently exposes himself, in real life, to the ridicule of men whom he despises; and in the general estimation of the world, falls below the level of the common drudges in business and the arts. The walk, inleed, of these unenlightened
practitioners, must necessarily be limited by their accidental opportunities of experience ; but so far as they go they operate with facility and success, while the merely speculative philosopher, although possessed of principles which enable him to approximate to the truth in an infinite variety of untried cases, and although he sees with pity the narrow views of the multitude, and the ludicrous pretensions with which they frequently oppose their trifling successes to his theoretical speculations, finds himself perfectly at a loss, when he is called upon, by the simplest occurrences of ordinary life, to carry his principles into execution. Hence the origin of that maxim, “which,” as Mr. Hume remarks, “has been so industriously propagated by the dunces of every age, that a man of genius is unfit for business."
In what consists practical or experimental skill, it is not easy to explain completely; but among other things it obviously implies, a talent for minute and comprehensive and rapid observation; a memory at once attentive and ready, in order to present to us accurately, and without reflection, our theoretical knowledge; a presence of mind not to be disconcerted by unexpected occurrences; and, in some cases, an uncommon degree of perfection in the external senses, and in the mechanical capacities of the body. All these elements of practical skill, it is obvious, are to be acquired only by habits of active exertion, and by a familiar acquaintance with real occurrences; for as all the practical principles of our nature, both intellectual and animal, have a reference to particulars, and not to generals, so it is in the active scenes of life alone, and amidst the details of business, that they can be cultivated and improved.
The remarks which have been already made are sufficient to illustrate the impossibility of acquiring a talent for business, or for any of the practical arts of life, without actual experience. They shew also that mere experience, without theory, may qualify a man, in certain cases, for distinguishing himself in both. It is not, however, to be imagined, that in this way
individuals are to be formed for the uncommon, or for the important situations of society, or even for enriching the arts by
new inventions; for as their address and dexterity are founded entirely on imitation, or derived from the lessons which experience has suggested to them, they cannot possibly extend to new combinations of circumstances. Mere experience, therefore, can at best prepare the mind for the subordinate departments of life, for conducting the established routine of business, or for a servile repetition in the arts of common operations.
In the character of Mr. George Grenville, which Mr. Burke introduced in his celebrated speech on American Taxation, a lively picture is drawn of the insufficiency of mere experience to qualify a man for new and untried situations in the administration of government.
The observations he makes on this subject, are expressed with his usual beauty and felicity of language, and are of so general a nature, that, with some trifling alterations, they may be extended to all the practical pursuits of life.
“ Mr. Grenville was bred to the law, which is, in my opinion, one of the first and noblest of human sciences—a science which
— does more to quicken and invigorate the understanding, than all the other kinds of learning put together ; but it is not apt, except in persons very happily born, to open and to liberalize the mind exactly in the same proportion. Passing from that study, he did not go very largely into the world, but plunged into business; I mean, into the business of office, and the limited and fixed methods and forms established there. Much knowledge is to be had, undoubtedly, in that line, and there is no knowledge which is not valuable. But it may be truly said, that men too much conversant in office, are rarely minds of remarkable enlargement. Their habits of office are apt to give them a turn to think the substance of business not to be much more important, than the forms in which it is conducted. These forms are adapted to ordinary occasions, and, therefore, persons who are nurtured in office, do admirably well, as long as things go on in their common order; but when the high roads are broken up, and the waters out, when a new and troubled scene is opened, and the file affords no precedent, then it is that a greater knowledge of mankind and a far more ex
tensive comprehension of things, are requisite, than ever office gave, or than office can ever give."
Nor is it in new combinations of circumstances alone, that general principles assist us in the conduct of affairs; they render the application of our practical skill more unerring, and more perfect. For, as general principles limit the utility of practical skill to supply the imperfections of theory, they diminish the number of cases in which this skill is to be employed, and thus, at once, facilitate its improvement wherever it is requisite, and lessen the errors to which it is liable, by contracting the field within which it is possible to commit them.
It would appear then, that there are two opposite extremes into which men are apt to fall, in preparing themselves for the duties of active life. The one arises from habits of abstraction and generalization carried to an excess; the other from a minute, an exclusive, and an unenlightened attention to the objects and events which happen to fall under their actual experience.
In a perfect system of education, care should be taken to guard against both extremes, and to unite habits of abstraction with habits of business, in such a manner as to enable men to consider things, either in general or in detail, as the occasion may require. Whichever of these habits may happen to gain an undue ascendant over the mind, it will necessarily produce a character limited in its powers, and fitted only for particular exertions. Hence some of the apparent inconsistencies which we may frequently remark in the intellectual capacities of the same person. One man, from an early indulgence in abstract speculation, possesses a knowledge of general principles, and a talent for general reasoning, united with a fluency and eloquence in the use of general terms, which seem to the vulgar to announce abilities fitted for any given situation in life; while, in the conduct of the simplest affairs, he exhibits every mark of irresolution and incapacity. Another not only acts with propriety and skill, in circumstances which require a minute attention to details, but possesses an acuteness of reasoning, and a facility of expression on all subjects, in which nothing but what is particular is involved, while, on general